On the Edge of my Seat and my Sanity

It’s dark. My fingers are trembling. Half my focus is kept on settling my stomach. I can feel the sweat on my forehead, pushing its way past my eyebrows. I remember someone once telling me that we evolved eyebrows to soak the sweat from our foreheads. All lies. I’m entering that stage of fear:

Anger.

I’m angry at my eyebrows for not doing what billions of years of evolution have trained them to do. I’m angry at my hands for shaking, my stomach for churning and lips for quivering. I’m angry at my friend sitting me down and convincing me to play Dead Space.

Do you like being scared? I don’t. Being scared is my body’s way of telling me that I am going to be dead very, very soon. It causes my voice to climb several octaves and my arms to flail in reach of something sharp and pointy. “It’ll be a laugh!” my friend says as he grins and shoves the thin, sharp disc into his PS3. “We’ll record it, we’ll have some beers and we’ll have a good time” he reassures me. He’s still got that creepy grin on his face. The bastard.

He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s loving every minute of it. What is it about making someone scared that’s so gratifying? We all do it – we jump out from behind doors, let off loud crackers and dress up as terrifyingly horrid creatures in order to turn our loved ones into a cringing, crumpled ball of muffled obscenities. This is all these games developers are doing. They’re finding new, creative ways to make us reevaluate our gaming experience.

Take the game Slender for example. As you tremble through the dark, deserted limbs of the surrounding forest the game makes it clear that you are prey. Something dark and dreadful stalks you. You can almost feel his breath on your neck, hear the leaves crunch underneath his feet. As the dark engulfs and the fog fills your lungs you know that you must fight all instincts that shout at you, plead with you to look back. But you keep walking. You don’t look back, you never look back. That such a simple game based around a rudimentary mechanic can elicit such a strong bout of emotion is a sign that as game developers refine these techniques and evolve their ideas the horror theme becomes something much more accessible.

An hour and thirty-five minutes have passed since I picked up the controller. My fingers are numb, my shirt is damp and my throat is coarse from swearing. I need to play more. What am I doing to myself? The whole time I was playing I wanted to leave, I wanted off this damned spaceship and away from these mutants. Yet here I am, teeth gritted, wanting nothing more than to plunge straight back into the terror and wade through the thrill.

Before playing Dead Space I had never thought of videogames being able to affect me in such a gripping way. I was used to being moved, excited, blood-thirsty and coming out the other side feeling that my experience with this game had been enhanced. But to think that being on the edge of my seat and my sanity would elicit such a strong emotional outcome was astounding to me. Before now I’d thought that horror in videogames was nothing more than a cheap trick used to get the heart pumping, but to play a game centred around the idea of fear was powerful.

Before I know it I’m in front of my computer. The words Amnesia: The Dark Descent paint my screen. There’s a brief period where I’m standing up, panting – I touched my leg with my foot and caused myself to scream. I curse at my foot, then reevaluate all notions of my own masculinity. I’m new to this, give me a chance.

It’s beer again tonight. Two to calm my nerves and one in case of emergencies. My left-hand fingers primed on the WASD keys and my right hand tightly gripping the mouse, I embrace the dark. My overall thoughts at the end of my playthrough were a resounding “Screw that for a joke.” This is scary on a whole other level. This isn’t explicit aliens bursting through vents with scythes for hands, this is implied terror.

Amnesia does something terribly clever, they bring back the deep-laden fears we experience through our childhood. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown and fear of isolation. Amnesia turns us into children who have been parted from their parents at the grocery store. We’re alone, scared and there are strange people everywhere heaving around large melons and arguing over herbs. By creating an immersive experience around our base fears, Amnesia creates a game so implicitly terrifying, I’d be hard-pressed to be more scared.

So the challenge is this. I’ve successfully screamed in Dead Space and I’ve been tenderly traumatised by Amnesia: The Dark Descent – so where do we go from here? In the coming year Visceral Games will be unleashing their threequel to the series Dead Space 3 and thechineseroom will let loose their sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

But should I care? They can immerse us once more in Dead Space 3 with an intriguing plot as they did with its predecessor, but can they make me shake without rehashing old devices from the previous two games? Can Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs keep a tight grip on their subtle interpretation of the horror game genre, while creating an experience fresh enough to keep veteran players comfortably numb?

In truth, I’m scared. I’m scared that these games will succeed in just that. Still, I will be there glassy-eyed, controller in hand. My palms will sweat, my jaw will clench and my knees will shake, but I will embrace the fear and breathe the thrill.

  • Jason Rice

    Fear in video games for me has always been based in the violation of that implicit trust between players and developers. Trust that they won’t completely screw you over, that the world you’re inhabiting follows rules, and that as long as you understand them, you’ll be fine.

    It’s when games break those rules that I get terrified. Eternal Darkness did this amazingly. The first time you think the game has reset or deleted your save is when the fourth wall is shattered and you have to start wondering: how far is this game willing to go? It’s profoundly unsettling to have that trust thrown out the window, but also, as you put it, exhilarating.